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Democratic gubernatorial candidate Martha Coakley lashed out Thursday at backers of Republican nominee Charlie Baker over what she called a "disgusting" Super PAC ad critical of her record on protecting children.
Baker said he didn't like the tone of the ad but stopped short of asking that it be pulled off the air. He criticized Coakley, the state's attorney general, for fighting a lawsuit that challenged the state's foster care system.
The 30-second TV spot by the pro-Baker Commonwealth Future PAC claims Coakley opposed reforms in the state's troubled Department of Children and Families and tried to "silence children's advocates."
During a news conference at her campaign headquarters, Coakley strongly defended her record of prosecuting child abuse, including the 1997 internationally publicized case of Louise Woodward, a British nanny who was charged with the murder of a baby under her care in Newton.
Coakley said Baker should publicly disavow the ad.
"Don't stand on the sidelines behind a Super PAC and make allegations that are untrue, that are absolutely unsupportable, to suggest that I have put kids at risk, that I have done something to make life for kids and families in Massachusetts more dangerous," she said.
"That is absolutely over the top, it's outrageous and I'm disgusted by it," Coakley added.
By law, candidates and their campaigns cannot coordinate with Super PACs, also known as independent expenditure groups.
Coakley defended the state against the 2010 lawsuit, brought by the New York-based group Children's Rights, that alleged DCF violated the constitutional rights of children by placing them in unstable and sometimes dangerous situations.
While a number of other states settled similar suits brought by the group, Massachusetts fought it and won a favorable ruling last year from a federal judge.
Baker said he was troubled that Coakley didn't recommend settling despite "overwhelming evidence that there were problems in the department, which were borne out by a series of tragedies over the past couple of years."
DCF has been under intense scrutiny for lapses including losing track of Jeremiah Oliver, a 5-year-old Fitchburg boy whose body was later found along the side of a highway.
Coakley said she has proposed changes at DCF, including a separate child protection division within the agency, and defended her handling of the lawsuit.
"The people bringing the suit were wrong," she said, adding the plaintiffs advocated a one-size-fits-all approach to the problem.
Sometimes criticized for seeming dispassionate on the campaign trail, Coakley became emotional at times while defending her prosecutorial record, including a stint as head of the child abuse unit of the Middlesex district attorney's office.
She was one of the lead prosecutors in the case of Woodward, who was convicted of second-degree murder in the death of 8-month-old Matthew Eappen. A judge later reduced the conviction to manslaughter and released Woodward from prison.
Matthew's mother, Deborah Eappen, appeared with Coakley on Thursday and praised her compassion and perseverance.
While Coakley attacked Republicans for politicizing child abuse and vowed not to do so herself, she also argued that spending cuts led to an increase in social workers' caseloads at the child protection agency in the 1990s, when Baker served as budget director in two Republican administrations.
Baker said he was proud of his record in state government on behalf of children.
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